Editorials

Want jobs for the ‘forgotten man’? Finish high-speed rail.

This rendering shows how a proposed high speed rail station would fit into the development planned for the city’s Railyard parcel in Sacramento.
This rendering shows how a proposed high speed rail station would fit into the development planned for the city’s Railyard parcel in Sacramento.

Disparaging California’s high-speed rail project as an overpriced boondoggle is a kind of received wisdom by now.

Self-styled protectors of taxpayers carp. Powerful congressional Republicans go out of their way to undermine the $64 billion project. It’s the “crazy train,” or the “train to nowhere.” Tesla founder Elon Musk says a hyperloop would be a smarter alternative. Advocates of driverless cars say they will be the answer.

But rail is not crazy in Europe or in Asia. And Fresno, Madera, Merced and Stanislaus counties, home to nearly 2 million Californians, are not nowhere. They are, however, too often forgotten.

The Sacramento Bee’s editorial board, which opposed the 2008 ballot measure that authorized high-speed rail, long since has come to see the life-changing potential of a transportation system that connects the San Joaquin Valley to Silicon Valley. It’s not too complicated to see the short and long-term reasons why.

In time, $6 billion will have been spent in and around Fresno. Ask experts when the last time was that such a sum was spent on a public works project in Fresno, and they will laugh. Never.

San Mateo County’s unemployment rate is 2.5 percent. In Santa Clara County, the rate is 3.1 percent. Statewide, 4.8 percent of the workforce is out of a job. In too much of the other California that straddles Highway 99, times remain tough.

Stanislaus County’s unemployment rate is 7.9 percent. Madera’s rate is 8.5 percent. Fresno County’s rate sits at 8.8 percent. Merced County’s rate is 10.2 percent.

This is both unfair and unsustainable. The Central Valley needs to become part of the rest of the state.

An efficient way to get to the Silicon Valley is one way connect it with the rest of California. There will be mutual benefit. Consider housing. In Santa Clara County, the median price of a home is north of $1 million. In Fresno, it slightly more than $200,000.

High-speed rail is at a particularly perilous point now. Its director, Jeff Morales, has stepped down, after withstanding more than his share of shots, many of them cheap. His replacement will need proven skills that include the ability to manage a huge construction project and navigate the fraught politics.

Gov. Jerry Brown, who inherited the project from Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, has been an enthusiastic supporter, but knows his successor might not be nearly as excited, particularly if Brown fails to secure stable funding.

The most obvious source is California’s cap-and-trade program by which greenhouse gas emitters such as refineries, food processors and people who drive cars powered by internal combustion engines pay to offset the damage they cause to the environment.

Sen. Bob Wieckowski, an East Bay Democrat, is carrying Senate Bill 775, which would extend cap-and-trade and lock in funding for certain public works projects including high-speed rail which, in time, will help reduce greenhouse gas emissions. SB 775 requires a two-thirds vote, tough for Democrats who recently voted to raise gasoline taxes and other fees by $5 billion a year for road maintenance.

But oil companies, always an influential lobby, should become Democrats’ allies, understanding that a retooled market-based cap-and-trade system is far preferable to the alternative: a dictate by legislators and regulators that emitters cut emissions.

A shorter term benefit of high-speed rail can be seen each workday at 14 job sites in Fresno and Madera counties. After years of infuriating delay, 1,100 people, many in hard hats, attest that construction is underway.

There’s foundation work on a bridge spanning the San Joaquin River at the north end of Fresno near Highway 99, and a huge trench, which will carry rail cars under Highway 180 north of downtown Fresno. At the south end of Fresno, work advances for the superstructure of a viaduct that will take the trains up and over major roads and Highway 99.

A new bridge is expected to open for traffic any day, carrying two-way traffic over Union Pacific Railroad tracks and the future high-speed train line in downtown Fresno. It will replace two one-way bridges that weren't tall enough to accommodate high-speed rail.

At last count, 380 small businesses had a piece of the project. A review of high-speed rail documents through the end of March showed more than $1 billion in construction invoices for work between Madera and Shafter had been approved.

In time, $6 billion will have been spent in and around Fresno. Ask experts when the last time was that such a sum was spent on a public works project in Fresno, and they will laugh. Never.

In Los Angeles, authorities have invested $9 billion on light rail and subways. Despite up-and-down ridership, another $12 billion is expected to be spent in coming years.

The Bay Rapid Transit System cost billions to build; a 2015 state audit said replacement value would be $21 billion. Then there is the $2 billion project to electrify the CalTrain commuter line between San Jose and San Francisco.

So adamant are they in their opposition to high-speed rail, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy and the 13 other House Republicans from California signed a letter urging that Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao withhold the $650 million federal share for the CalTrain project.

After initially bowing to their demand, Chao wisely reversed herself a week ago, and announced that the feds would fully fund their share. Construction will begin soon.

And when it is done, we all will benefit, not just commuters and businesses in the Bay Area. Like the L.A. subway and BART, an improved CalTrain will ease gridlock, enhance economic activity, and reduce air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. The same will be true of high-speed rail.

The $20 billion Central Valley to Silicon Valley leg won’t carry commuters until 2025, give or take. But once it does, the forgotten part of California that coastal residents fly over or zip past en route to Yosemite will become connected to the rest of the state and gain their share of California’s bounty. That’s not a boondoggle. That’s fair.

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